Today I sent five emails, posted on Instagram, scrolled through Twitter, and sent out about a hundred text messages. I only physically interacted with one person, unless you also count the cashier at the food court.. Communication has changed vastly in just a decade. Kids today simply text their friends instead of calling their houses and awkwardly talking to their parents first, as I did.
Written language has evolved as a consequence of such convenient electronic communication, leading to the stunning variety of media in conversation, like pictures, gifs, and most importantly emojis. Despite many accusations that emojis are a teen fad, they are used by all age groups. Every other text I receive from my parents contains an emoji kiss or a smile.
From 2013 to 2015 approximately 10 billion emojis were sent on Twitter alone. You can track the use of emojis on the website Emoji Tracker, which follows the popularity of each emoji on Twitter in real time. They are incredibly popular on every other form of media as well, especially Instagram, Facebook, and instant messaging. There even exists a translation of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” in emojis. It’s called “Emoji Dick; and you can buy the laser-printed hardcover color version for just $200. Thankfully it also contains the full original text.
Silly uses of emojis like this have convinced many that emojis are a craze destined to fade into nostalgia. However, these critics are bound to be disappointed because emojis are here to stay. Emojis have turned into a simple reaction to the rapid increase in computer based communication. They help replace the tone and sentiment present in face-face communication that is lost through a screen.
Language has always evolved according to pressures in society. In the past the ability to read and write was reserved only for the elite, at least until books became affordably mass-produced. As literacy increased, the formality of language decreased in both written and verbal communication.
Since the 1700s, writing has been formalized and adjusted to cultural evolutions, as well as the constraints of evolving social rules. The major advance in technology in the past decade has led to an impactful cultural revolution (Ojima 2012.) Efficiency and ease of access has always ruled technology. So it is not a surprise that discourse has transitioned to instant messaging, email and social media.
However there is a problem with purely written communication. Junichi Azuma, a professor of linguistics at the Juntendo University School of Medicine, wrote an analysis on the use of emoticons in communication in 2012. Azuma stated, “… purely linguistic elements are said to convey only about 5 percent of the content of face-to-face communication, while non-verbal information can account for about 65 percent and prosodic features can comprise 30 percent of the content,” (Azuma 2012).
When emails started becoming more popular, the problem in interpreting communication became clear. The Wall Street Journal wrote a story about emails which discussed email misunderstanding, as well as how it can lead to the individuals involved feeling insulted, ignored or unappreciated. Even today I find myself agonizing over correct and respectable wording while emailing professors and colleagues.
Studies show that when people read through a message they only determine the intended meaning 56% of the time. Compared to 73.1% of the time in face-to-face communication. In the spoken language there is a lot of room for sarcasm, double meanings, and implications. All the possibilities affecting the exact meaning of the words are second-guessed by the reader.
The ease of online communication is weighed down by the stress of making sure people understand what you are saying. Language needed to evolve to combat this problem. Emojis developed as a consequence. Azuma theorized that emojis introduced the sentiment that online language was craving. Emojis prevents online communication from being truly robotic, as well as possibly leading to a future universal language.
In 2015 a research group from Jožef Stefan Institute in Slovenia conducted a sentiment analysis for emojis. A sentiment analysis concerns the opinions, sentiments, evaluations, attitudes, and emotions gained from reading a text. In this test 83 participants analyzed over 1.6 million tweets with and without emojis. The tweets were in 13 different languages and each participant was a native speaker in the language they read. The participants rated each emoji based on its sentiment (positive, neutral, or negative) and determined the meaning behind them.
The results are strong implications for the future of language. In a comparison of the sentiment of tweets with and without emojis, the researchers found that the presence of emojis lead to a more positive impression. They found out that 54% of tweets with emojis were interpreted as positive, as opposed to 36% of tweets without emojis. The equal split of sentiment within tweets without emojis implies that sentiment is difficult to determine without emotional markers.
Overwhelmingly the emojis contained a positive sentiment. The majority of the 751 emojis analyzed have a strong green sentiment ranking, especially those that are more frequently used. In fact, of the most popular 33 emojis, 27 are positively ranked. The study shows that emojis are mainly used to reassure the reader that the intent was positive, and to encourage confident and expressive communication.
The use of emojis can have a strong impact on the future of language. The benefit of emojis is the increased range of expression that they allow written communication to achieve. Without emojis the gaps in language are usually filled in with the knowledge the reader has about the writer. A sibling or a close friend would be able to determine the intended meaning without contextual emoji clues.
However, with the dawning age of technology and online communication, the contact is often between strangers who may be separated by great distances. Emojis allow the reader to understand the intended meaning without having a personal connection to the person they are communicating with.
The study in Slovenia also discovered that the sentiment of emojis is independent of language. For each of the 13 languages investigated, the emojis were each determined to have the same sentiment. This indicates that the use of emojis could be useful in bilingual communication as an aide, and might also lead to an international form of communication based on emoji-like images in the future.
However, there is a clear problem with using emojis. Naomi Baron, a professor of English and Linguistics at American University, claims that “the most important effect of instant messaging on language turns out to be…the control seasoned users feel they have over their communication networks.” The problem with the ease of communicating emotional and delicate situations over the internet, combined with the control one has communicating via computer versus in person, could lead to a future society that is terrified of face-to-face conversation. Especially when the topic is uncomfortable or sensitive.
People today often elect to send bad news over text instead of in person because they are scared of the reaction of the reader. (Break up texts anyone?) A future society that can communicate away from each other so easily will always choose to do so, although this does not mean we are doomed to enter a future where every individual is connected solely by invisible Wi-Fi networks and computer cords.
The necessity of human interaction will relieve some of the temptation to communicate online. Emojis in the future will be a fantastic tool for international discourse and help maintain the human impact of every interaction online. One day there could be an online script entirely out of emoji characters that will preserve the expression of communication.